The photo above is a view of the Angeles National Forest surrounding Devore Campground, showing the damage from the Station Fire. It was shot from the top of Mt. Wilson, on a later trip than the one described below.
Two weeks before this trip, the Angeles National Forest was finally reopened. I attempted to hike into Devore Campground, but was told that the area was closed by a Forest Service Employee who found me at Newcomb Pass. Devore campground will likely be closed for quite a while as the surrounding area was completely destroyed by the fire. Here are further photos of the damage: Angeles National Forest Fire damage.
I arrived at the Chantry Flats parking area around 7:15 on Saturday morning and it was already starting to get crowded. Strapping on my pack, I began the descent down the large paved access road leading down into Santa Anita Canyon. This is a great area for hiking and backpacking, easily accessed by the Gabrileno Trail, which traces the course of the San Gabriel River.
When I arrived at the trailhead, I was surprised to find no Ranger posted. I had wanted to ask about the conditions in the area, as my internet searches had failed to uncover specific details about damage, closures, and safety conditions. Looking back, I should have called ahead to ask about conditions on the ground, rather than expecting figure it all out on the fly.
The first sign of trouble came in the form of a weekend-warrior type heading back up from his morning hike. He stopped to ask where I was headed (Hikers often seem quite curious of Backpackers). After I told him Devore, he informed me that everything to the North had been completely destroyed, using the word “obliterated” to describe the damage.
I was dismayed, but still intent on seeing things with my own eyes. I continued hiking North along the Gabrilena, winding my way along the North Fork past Sturtevant Falls, Spruce Grove Campground, stopping for a few minutes to rest and refill my camel pak at Sturtevant’s Camp. About half a mile short of Newcomb, I ran into a backpacker coming the opposite direction.
He stopped when he reached me to say hello, folded his trekking poles under his arms, and wiped beads of perspiration from his sunglasses.
“How’s it look up there?” I inquired.
“Not too good” he retorted with a grimace. “It’s all grey, and it makes me sad.”
Our short discussion revealed that everything to the North and West of Newcomb had been completely incinerated.
His plan had been the same as mine, but executed 24 hours in earlier.
“How bad is the campground itself?” I asked cautiously.
“I didn’t make it that far.” He had stopped at the fire line, setting up dry-camp at Newcomb and settling in the for the night. I wasn’t ready to accept defeat that easily.
“Do you think I could still stay at Devore?”
“I don’t see why not. There’s nobody out there to stop you.”
We wished each other luck and went our separate ways. I was dismayed by the news, but still figured that I could make it to the campground and get some great pictures of the surrounds. I’ve never seen the aftermath of a gigantic forest fire first hand, and figured it could create some interesting shots.
Arriving at Newcomb Pass around 10:15, I dumped my gear on the picnic table and did some scouting around. One of the first things I noticed was that Newcomb’s sign posts had all been ripped out of the ground and laid down on their sides. A fire road had also been plowed right up the side of the hill, where large trees and dense forest had previously stood.
I climbed the very steep first few meters, onto what looked like a clearing that I hoped would provide a sweeping view of the valley to the North, providing a good view of the area. I never found that great a vantage point, but the little that I could see didn’t look very promising.
South of Newcomb remains a rich forest, a veritable sea of green, with lush hillsides and a dense canopy, like that of the foreground in this post’s first image. But to the North and West, there’s virtually nothing left but ash. Skeletons of wood where the trees formerly stood, blowing dust, and barren hillsides. It’s a wasteland now, and all because of our overly excessive fire management policies.
Before the Station Fire, Angeles National Forest had not been allowed to burn for nearly 50 years- promoting excessively overgrown underbrush, and a great deal of fuel. Our misguided insistence on stopping all fires in the area promoted this problem, turning the forest into a ticking time bomb.
The photo below shows the results of this carelessness. The lesson of this tragedy is not that forest fires are the enemy, but that the problem lies in man’s intervention in the natural cycle- even when made on behalf of “preserving” the environment itself. The more we attempt to protect it, the more damage we seem to do.
Though the scene was disheartening, I still thought I could camp Devore since I had seen a line of trees in the valley, following what I was certain to be the path of the West Fork River. The campground sits immediately on it’s banks, so I figured it may have survived the destruction. I hiked back to the picnic tables where I had left my gear, ate a lunch of rolls, smoked gouda, mozarella string cheese, and grapes, and weighed my options.
“It’s probably worth the risk of exploring”, I thought to myself, “especially considering it’s only 10:30 and I’m just 1.6 miles away. It really could still be there, but even if it isn’t, I’ve still got plenty of time to return, so I might as well find out.”
But it wasn’t meant to be. When I approached the trail-head I found it barricaded by tree branches and blocked off with a gigantic mound of dirt. The sign noting the mileage to Devore was replaced with one reading “NO —–ING”. I couldn’t figure out what it said, but it was pretty clearly an indication of a no-go.
I resigned myself to emulate the backpacker I’d met along the trail and set up dry-camp at Newcomb. I wasn’t happy about having to abandon Devore, but was definitely looking forward to a great view of the night sky from the newly cleared fire access road.
I laid down on my sleeping bag for an afternoon meditation. I was perfectly happy with staying at Newcomb, and while the devastation to the North was certainly upsetting, I kept in mind that it was simply nature’s way of clearing out the old garbage and making room for the next generation.
I tried to do the same with my own mind, releasing attachment to thoughts and instead simply listening to the world around me. I must have fallen asleep at some point, and was woken up by a stranger’s voice.
“You can’t camp here! You’re not even supposed to be here!”
It was one of the local Forest Service guys, and apparently, he wasn’t too happy about my presence in the area.
“Where were you planning on going?”
“That area’s shut! It might not look like it, but the fire came through here. It’s still far too dangerous. You can’t stay here.”
“I didn’t see any signs…”
He cut me off. “They’re patrolling the roads, arresting trespassers, and giving out citations to anyone in the area. The hillsides are crumbling, we’ve got rockslides and tree limbs falling all over the place, and there is heavy bear activity right now. You need to leave now!”
He advised me to return to Spruce Grove and I agreed that I would. I turned away to start gathering up some of the things in my tent, then began to ask another question before realizing that he had already disappeared.
On the way back to Spruce I took a break and sat on a rock overlooking the valley toward the East. I felt quite peaceful, and the forest around me was extraordinarily silent. The fire seems to have affected the spirit of this place. It’s as if the entire Angeles is still cringing in pain.
Much to my chagrin, I found another group of campers staying at Spruce’s upper sites (my favorite spots), so I contonued down to the southern section where I’d never stayed before. It’s not as nice as the upper sites, sitting much closer to the trail and on uneven ground. I won’t be using those sites again if it can be avoided.
After assembling camp for the second time that afternoon, I ate another roll, a handful of grapes, some cheese, and two packets of ramen. It may seem like a feast, but I was still starving at the end of it since I’d burned up so many calories by that point in the day. I laid down in the tent and turned to my iPod for some relaxation, drowning out the people around me who weren’t as excited about listening to the sounds around us.
Getting up early the next morning, I had a quick breakfast of Blueberry Oatmeal and then hiked out. I had failed in my objective to reach Devore, but still enjoyed myself in the process.
I would have liked to explore Devore in greater depth (I’ve only stayed there once) as it seemed like a much older, more mysterious, and more interesting part of the forest than where I usually camp. I still want to return, but realize that it may never be a possibility at this point.
This trip taught me an important lesson, which is to make every second count. I shouldn’t have waited so long to return to Devore, and I haven’t done the same with other destinations- as my many recent Trip Reports can attest.
Time: About 30 hours
Photos: Very few
Hiking into an area that was just burned by one of the worst forest fires in Southern California history is apparently not entirely safe, even for an Eagle Scout who does things like this all the time.